Director: Ben Wheatley
Stars: Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Harry Simpson
Plot: When a former British soldier-turned hitman haunted by the past takes on a job, his former transgressions begin to catch up with him.
The popular perception of a successful professional hitman is the ‘lone wolf’ – a man (or indeed woman) who lives in the shadows, has minimal human contact and takes no chances when it comes to a job. Leon (1994) The Day of the Jackal (1973) and The American (2010) all lived up to this stereotype with varying results at the box office. So, when a film comes along that features a protagonist who is unpredictable, on the edge and prone to outbursts of random violence (even before a hit), you know you’re in for something altogether different.
Kill List is divided into three acts – a suburban drama, then an ultraviolent kill-fest and finally a denouement which is both surreal and disturbing in its reveal. Jay (Maskell) and wife Shel (Buring) live in a quiet suburban neighbourhood with their son Sam (Simpson), but their constant arguments suggest their marriage is very much on the rocks, with a mention of a job gone wrong in Kiev which appears to have left Jay with post-traumatic stress. Jay’s wise-cracking friend Gal (Michael Smiley) arrives for a dinner party with his squeeze Fiona (Emma Fryer), but they have barely made it onto the main course when Jay slams his full plate onto the table and yet another screaming match ensues between him and Shel. Amidst the chaos, Gal puts Sam to bed and Fiona draws a sinister symbol on the back of the bathroom mirror (like you do). This act is the first hint at the strange events to come in the film’s home straight.
Gal ropes in Jay to take up the offer of a contract from a mysterious man known as The Client (Struan Rodger), to kill three people – a priest, a librarian and an MP. The money will obviously help Jay who hasn’t worked for the past eight months and will hopefully save his marriage. Jay, having had his hand sliced by The Client with a knife to seal the blood contract, sets off with Gal to take out their targets one by one, all the while staying in nondescript hotel chains. First up is the priest, who we see holding a service while Jay and Gal prepare his vestry for the forthcoming bloodbath. He then walks in, Jay shoots him in the head, but not before the cleric delivers a final “thankyou” to his killers. The librarian is the next one on the list – he’s been filming his acts of child abuse – both Jay and Gal are disgusted by the videos and are subsequently brutal in their dispatching of the perpetrator, using a hammer to do the deed. He is also strangely grateful to be killed. Jay then goes on a mini-crusade of his own, ridding the world of a couple more low-lifes who aren’t on the list, much to Gal’s bewilderment.
The Client then throws in a curve ball by make an addition to the list – they must also kill a hunchback, the details of which are not yet revealed. Jay’s hand meanwhile becomes infected so he pays a visit to his GP to get it looked at. Unfortunately his doctor is not there and his replacement instead gives him advice to just live in the moment, which is yet another weird clue to what’s coming. Jay and Gal settle down in the woods surrounding the MP’s house at dusk, but then see something among the trees which they feel compelled to follow. What happens next heralds the third and final chapter in the film which will remain unspoiled, but many (though not all) of the questions asked throughout the film about what exactly is the bigger picture here, are finally answered.
The first three-quarters of British low-budget film Kill List are strangely intriguing, but also punctuated quite literally by scenes of extreme violence and humour – it’s Eastenders meets Pulp Fiction but without the cutting wit of the latter. One particular stand-out scene takes place in a hotel. Jay and Gal sit eating dinner while musing over their mission, when a group of Christians begin a loud discussion followed by a sing-song. They consequently feel Jay’s irritation at having to share his mealtime with God botherers. Treading a fine line between the two works well, combined with the very unsettling score which is eerily similar to The Shining (1980). Beginning the story in suburbia lulls you into a false sense of security to convince you for the first twenty minutes or so that you are witnessing a family drama – that is until Fiona makes her mark.
There are however two major (and one minor) flaws with the film. The first is the fact that anti-heroes Jay and Gal are supposed to win our empathy, especially in the last reel, but this never really happens. A character who kills people for a living has to be someone we root for, even though we know what he or she is doing is completely wrong – the script seems to fail both Maskell and Smiley on this score despite their best efforts. The second major problem is the ending – it doesn’t satisfy as it should after such a build-up and feels like it was written first and tagged onto the end of almost another film entirely. The minor flaw mentioned deals with the answering of questions that have been raised throughout. While some are perhaps satisfied after some considerable thought afterwards, others are frustratingly left open to interpretation which grates as the end credits appear to roll all too early.
Kill List has received plaudits for its daring and originality, despite drawing comparisons in its finale with a certain well-known horror film and has oddly merited a number of five-star reviews. Sadly, there’s a real lack of substance in the script for the final payoff which may prevent many of the film’s audience to understand and connect with its message.